Dialogic Selves: Discursive Strategies in Transcultural Collaborative Autobiographies by Rita and Jackie Huggins and Mark and Gail Mathabane

By Davis, Rocio G. | Biography, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Dialogic Selves: Discursive Strategies in Transcultural Collaborative Autobiographies by Rita and Jackie Huggins and Mark and Gail Mathabane


Davis, Rocio G., Biography


Collaborative autobiographies challenge the fundamental paradigm of the unified self of traditional autobiography, as well as the concept of monologic representation. Texts that present a dialogue between two voices--two positions--radically alter not only the idea of individual self-representation, but the autobiographical process itself. Janice Kulyk Keefer has defined transcultural contexts as the manner in which the dominant culture

   becomes part of a larger, looser structure within which literary
   texts which foreground the experience of "minority" as opposed to
   "dominant" groups both present themselves and are received as
   representative, even paradigmatic forms for an entire social
   formation, and not just for the ethnic or racial group with which
   the text's author is associated. (265)

In such contexts, strategies of life writing acquire discursive meaning. The notion of "transcultural" privileges the process of "circulation and exchange of ideas, energies, vision between different ethnocultural groups as well as between 'center' and 'margin,' 'dominant' and 'minority' groups" (Keefer 265), an operation enacted analogously in life writing exercises that involve the participation of more than one person. As contemporary transcultural autobiographies negotiate experiences such as race and ethnicity, politics, and national and cultural affiliation, a challenge to the prescriptive paradigms of autobiographical writing arises through the reworking of generic structures.

In this essay, I address the project of collaborative autobiographies--limited here to texts that present two separate individual voices, rather than "as told to" narratives--as a performative act that renegotiates critical concepts of the self-in-autobiography. (1) The highly singular signifying strategy in these collaborative life writing texts transforms the space and the interaction between the voices into contested sites of meaning. Authorizing a dialogue, rather than the traditional monologue, as the central discursive operation in autobiography indicates a multilayered project whose generic and cultural resonances invite examination. I will analyze the narrative approaches employed in Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins's Auntie Rita, and Mark and Gail Mathabane's Love in Black and White, as discursive schemes that posit a particular sociopolitical and personal agenda within the multilayered context of transcultural life writing.

These texts serve as emblematic examples of this form of life writing for two reasons. First, both the Hugginses and the Mathabanes write from the perspective of persons who live in countries--Australia and the United States--where race is a significant factor in political, social, cultural, and personal life, and where racial policies and discourses on race and racial relations underwent dramatic modifications during the twentieth century, which significantly affected their personal stories. Published in 1994, Auntie Rita is an important political and sociological document. Rita Huggins has been a significant player in the fight for recognition of Aboriginal rights and culture, and her life story--which covers the 1920s to the early 1990s--may be considered representative of other Aboriginal women of her generation. Her daughter Jackie is an academic, a writer, and an important activist for Aboriginal rights as well. (2) Their text traces the changing situation of Aboriginal women in the twentieth century. Mark Mathabane immigrated to the United States on a tennis scholarship to attend University in 1978, and achieved popularity with the publication of his bestselling autobiography, Kaffir Boy, the first widely distributed text by a black South African about apartheid. Because of his representative position as a voice challenging apartheid--in addition to book tours, speaking engagements, and television interviews, in 1989 he published Kaffir Boy in America--and his negotiation of racial politics both in South Africa and the United States, his marriage to a white American became a highly charged issue. …

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